Agamemnon by Aeschylus: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Whether on the news or on stage, stories of dysfunctional royal families always draw a crowd. You can imagine, then, the crown Aeschylus' tragedy 'Agamemnon' must've drawn when you explore this lesson with a summary and quotes from this tragic play!

A House Divided: The Characters of Aeschylus' Agamemnon

Some of us might have trouble keeping the names and relationships straight in plays by Shakespeare or Chekhov, so just imagine how difficult it could be with a play from ancient Greece! Before we dive into summarizing this tragedy by the Athenian playwright, Aeschylus (ca. 525-456 B.C.), let's take a quick look at the members of the legendary divided 'House of Atreus' and others who make Agamemnon truly tragic.

Though the play bears his name, Agamemnon, son of Atreus and king of Argos, is rarely seen or heard from in it. As with many ancient tragedies, one of the most prominent characters in Aeschylus' play is actually the Chorus, which consists, in this instance, of Argive men too old to have fought alongside their king in the Trojan War.

Perhaps the real star of the show, though, is Agamemnon's cunningly vengeful wife, Clytemnestra (typically pronounced 'Kleye-tim-nes-tra'), who's been scheming for control in his absence along with her accomplice, Aegisthus (pron. 'Eye-gis-thuhs'), Agamemnon's first cousin.

Of the smaller roles remaining, there's the Watchman, whom Clytemnestra ordered to stand watch for signals of the king's return, as well as the army's Herald. Of course, there's also Cassandra - a captured Trojan princess and prophetess - whose oracles of doom ring all too true.

Bloodline: A Brief Synopsis of Agamemnon

Perhaps to amplify the foreboding, Aeschylus had the play begin at night, with the tired Watchman complaining about his endless vigil for news of the army's return. Suddenly, however, the beacons Clytemnestra had ordered built burst into flame, signaling the return of Agamemnon to Argos. As the Watchman runs to tell his mistress the news, the Chorus of Argive elders steps in to flesh-out the story of Agamemnon's ten year absence.

According to the Chorus, their king has been gone for the past decade fighting alongside his brother, Menelaus, in the Trojan War to reclaim the legendary beauty, Helen. They also stop to criticize Clytemnestra's beacon system, saying she's celebrating too early since they've received no 'official' word of the king's return. The Chorus then reflects on the prophecies surrounding the House of Atreus - particularly concerning the Trojan War and the price Agamemnon must pay for victory.

The Chorus continues its flashback to the earlier days of the War when the king was first setting off. Beset by fierce storms at sea, Agamemnon decided to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the goddess Artemis and secure safe passage to Troy. However, although he may have made it to Troy in one piece, Agamemnon's sacrifice has enraged another powerful female figure, and the Chorus can't help but feel that something bad is on its way to the House of Atreus.

Clytemnestra comes before the Chorus at this point to give them news of Agamemnon's return; however, they again question the effectiveness of using beacons in the manner she has. Nevertheless, the queen stands by her convictions and persuades the elders to join in the sacrifices going on throughout Argos. As the Chorus parts company with the queen, they murmur about her methods, but not too long before their ideas are proven wrong by the Herald who arrives to announce the end of the war.

The Herald gives the full news of a Greek victory at Troy, while the Chorus expresses their relief and admits to some fear at home in Agamemnon's absence. The Herald continues his story of the fleet's storm-tossed exit from Troy, saying he was separated from Agamemnon but that he's certain the king will get home. As they await his arrival, the Chorus reminisces on the circumstances that drew the Greeks into the war in the first place, condemning Helen for her role in it all.

Agamemnon soon arrives on the scene, and it would appear all's well in Argos. However, as he and Clytemnestra share their reunion in the Chorus' presence, the Argive elders feel something sinister at work. Their fears are confirmed when they meet Cassandra, whom Agamemnon has brought back as a prize from the war, and who warns the Chorus of further bloodshed in the House of Atreus, including her own death.

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